Groundhog Day on the West Side, also known as the NBA trade deadline, began with sunshine and record early-February temperatures.
It was a perfect day to procrastinate and put things off until next summer.
Playing the Bill Murray role as the guy who experiences deja vu every time he awakes, Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas was feeling good Thursday about the state of the franchise. It’s AK’s default setting.
So to no one’s surprise, Karnišovas did what he did at the trade deadline in 2022 and ‘23: nada.
“Any adjustments will be made in the future,” he said. “But this group is really good.”
After rallying from a 4-15 start, the “really good” Bulls were 24-27 with a 21.5% chance of making the playoffs, according to basketball-reference.com. But they were in play-in position, holding at No. 9 in the Eastern Conference entering Thursday’s game in Memphis, Tenn.
And they had just come off the most entertaining game of the season — a brilliant comeback in an overtime victory Tuesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves — fueled by Coby White, who has emerged as a dependable star to complement DeMar DeRozan.
Aside from the winning part, all was good in AK’s world.
“Coby is on a different planet right now,” Karnišovas said.
But so is Karnišovas if he believes this team can do anything more than compete for a play-in spot without Zach LaVine. Or maybe Karnišovas is OK with it.
Either way, the cross-your-fingers philosophy seems here to stay.
LaVine’s season-ending foot surgery Thursday was probably a sign to wave the white flag and start looking toward 2024-25. By standing pat, Karnišovas suggested that DeRozan, a free agent after the season, would probably return, and perhaps even Lonzo Ball too — if his rehab ever ends. Karnišovas said “in a perfect world” Ball would return, though no one will believe that until they see it.
Even with all the setbacks, Karnišovas looked at the Bulls’ glass as being three-quarters full and determined no changes were necessary.
“I just think there are so many positive stories around this team,” he said, adding he didn’t see any trade possibility that “would make us better.”
He might be right. He might be wrong. But he tripled down on his belief that this core needs to be preserved at all costs. Everyone was “all bunched up in the middle” in the East standings, Karnišovas said, as if that were reason for optimism.
Karnišovas had no real urgency to shake things up. Fans may squawk, but Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf knows the United Center remains nearly full on a nightly basis in spite of this two-year run of mediocrity. The Bulls lead the NBA in average attendance at 20,273, on track to finish first for the third straight season.
If they didn’t care for this bunch, why would they keep showing up?
Despite most believing nothing would happen, Bulls fans tuned into the trade-deadline shows to follow the latest moves — or nonmoves, in this case. The New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors all made at least one trade.
The Bulls? No need to worry.
“This particular team showed they can compete with the best,” Karnišovas said. “And that’s what I’m excited about.”
Around 12:20 p.m., ESPN’s Zach Lowe was shouting at the camera about the Oklahoma City Thunder acquiring perpetually available injury magnet Gordon Hayward from the Charlotte Hornets for three players and draft compensation.
“It’s not the sexiest move, but it’s a big move by their standards,” Lowe said.
Bulls fans also would’ve settled for a nonsexy move, perhaps one that could pay small dividends, like last year’s post-deadline waiver pickup of Patrick Beverley. It was interesting to see Beverley go from the 76ers to the Bucks on Thursday, then hilariously announce the trade on his podcast’s social media account.
ESPN’s trade-deadline show barely mentioned the Bulls. No one takes them seriously as a contender —except for themselves.
“We believe in the guys in this locker room,” White said after Tuesday’s win. “Obviously there is a lot of chatter at the trade deadline. Every team has chatter now. … But we don’t pay attention to that. We worry about the guys in the locker room and how we can figure out as a team to stack wins.”
With 30 games left, the Bulls need to get stacking.
At least we know White should be the one to build around next summer. It took four-plus years for White to become the player John Paxson envisioned when the Bulls drafted him in 2019.
“He can score, and you have to score in this day and age,” Paxson said after drafting White out of North Carolina with the No. 7 pick. “He’s an added piece tonight. When we think back to two years ago draft night and what we’ve done, we’ve added a lot of really good pieces in Zach, Lauri (Markkanen), Wendell (Carter). Now we have Coby.”
Markkanen and Carter are long gone, and LaVine might have played his final game as a Bull. White could be the last man standing from the GarPax era when all is said and done. His emergence has been the best thing about this season, which otherwise has been a continuation from last year’s mediocrity.
LaVine’s admission he would be accepting of a trade started the season on an awkward note, and his foot injury made him untradeable even if there was a market to begin with. But Karnišovas pointed to the positives he has seen.
“Most positive thing for me, what we didn’t see last year, is that our young players are developing and they’re taking a step forward,” he said, referring to White, Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Williams. “They are the ones making plays at the end …”
Karnišovas kept going back to being “competitive,” which means the status quo is OK as long as they’re in the bunched-up race in the East. His boss has given him the green light to stand still.
“Ownership is supporting me whatever we decide,” he said.
So cross your fingers and pray. Again.